Louise's Suitcase and How Film Can Help Make Our Daddying Mission: Possible
By Allan Shedlin
Grampsy and Founder, DCG and Daddying Film Festival & Forum (D3F)
As with so many young families, my children were born as their mother and I were establishing our careers. She was a medical anthropologist, and I an educator. Her job required her to conduct qualitative research outside the country for regular periods, mine called for long commutes, long hours, and additional graduate studies.
For us to care for our three young daughters, we needed to depend on a variety of arrangements. One of the constants was the help of an elderly widow who relished being an important, integral surrogate member of our family. Her name was Louise and she helped us for many years as our daughters matured and our careers flourished.
Louise was the closest thing to a saint I’ve ever met, and she refused compensation, always saying, “I should be paying you.” On her birthday, and every other occasion we could use as an excuse to give her a gift, we gave her something practical. If it was clothing, Louise would always say, “This is too nice, I’m going to put it in my suitcase for my last trip to the hospital.”
Louise died of a heart attack at 95 years old, the day after our youngest daughter left for college. She never got to take that last trip to the hospital. She never got to wear those clothes she was saving in her suitcase.
Twenty-one years ago, after several years conducting daddying research, I saw the Academy Award-nominated documentary My Architect: A Son’s Journey by Nathaniel Kahn. Nathaniel tried to understand more about his father, Louis Kahn, through his architecture, many years after his father’s death.
As I sat in the darkened theater, profoundly moved by its poignance, I found myself crying frequently, deeply touched. And I found myself wishing my dad had been sitting next to me so we could have discussed some of the issues raised in the movie – personal issues that would have been difficult to spontaneously broach, but easier if we were referring to similar issues raised in the movie. That was not to be, as my father had passed away a year earlier.
So, in that darkened theater, more than two decades ago, a lightbulb when off for me: why not use film as an opportunity to create a pathway to deepen connections between fathers and their children? But like Louise’s suitcase, I kept filling my virtual suitcase with other ways to help fathers become the dads they want to be – through workshops, writings, programs, collaborations, and numerous presentations.
About two years ago, I remembered the lesson of Louise’s suitcase and decided to create the Daddying Film Festival & Forum (D3F) – the inaugural, in-person Daddying Film Forum debuted two weeks ago in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Films are all about storytelling. And the ones D3F received this year from 21 countries told so many stories that illustrate the power and importance of our now-annual Film Festival & Forum's ability to shine a spotlight on the impact of father involvement, or its absence.
Participants at this year's Daddying Film Forum were welcomed by Marc Comstock, a local actor and President of SAF-AFTRA NM and a member of the Governor’s Council on Film & Media Industries. He was accompanied by his five-year-old daughter, Violet.
Marc noted that “Every moment as a dad is part of a story, even if it’s not being filmed.” He noted that the films being shown during the Forum “describe feelings, narratives, and even fantasies of the child-dad relationship.” He urged participants to “think about the movies stored in our memories and about the ones you may want to [create and] submit to D3F 2024.”
When Asiana Lee, a University of New Mexico undergraduate film major, introduced her heartfelt short film “Pipe Dreams,” an Atticus Award finalist, she spoke about her culture’s reluctance to speak directly about feelings and her concomitant reliance on filmmaking to talk about her feelings about her father and grandfather and her gratitude for the sacrifices they make to enable her to pursue her dream of becoming a professional filmmaker. My eyes teared up when she told me she planned to use the award money she earned as a finalist, to take her father to a concert – a treat he would not have been able to afford on his salary as a plumber.
We all have such symbolic suitcases.
During three decades of in-depth interviews with 205 fathers, so much soulful sadness has been shared by men describing the “bookends of daddy yearning” – wishing their fathers had been more involved in their lives and also wishing they were more involved in their own children’s lives.
That’s a suitcase that should remain empty.
So, I again urge all fathers: DON’T KEEP THE DAD YOU WANT TO BE WAITING. Daddying is a Mission: Possible.
Allan Shedlin has devoted his life's work to improving the odds for children and families. He has three daughters, five grandchildren, as well as numerous "bonus" sons/daughters and grandchildren. Trained as an educator, Allan has alternated between classroom service, school leadership, parenting coaching, policy development, and advising at the local, state, and national levels. After eight years as an elementary school principal, Allan founded and headed the National Elementary School Center for 10 years. In the 1980s, he began writing about education and parenting for major news outlets and education trade publications, as well as appearing on radio and TV. In 2008, he was honored as a "Living Treasure" by Mothering Magazine and founded REEL Fathers in Santa Fe, NM, where he now serves as president emeritus. In 2017, he founded the DADvocacy Consulting Group. In 2018, he launched the DADDY Wishes Fund and Daddy Appleseed Fund. In 2019, he co-created and began co-facilitating the Armor Down/Daddy Up! and Mommy Up! programs. He has conducted daddying workshops in such diverse settings as Native American pueblos, veterans groups, nursery schools, penitentiaries, Head Start centers, corporate boardrooms, and various elementary schools, signifying the widespread interest in men in becoming the best possible dad. In 2022, Allan founded and co-directed the Daddying Film Festival & Forum to enable students, dads, and other indie filmmakers to use film as a vehicle to communicate the importance of fathers or father figures in each others' lives. Allan earned his elementary and high school diplomas from NYC’s Ethical Culture Schools, BA at Colgate University, MA at Columbia University’s Teachers College, and an ABD at Fordham University. But he considers his D-A-D and GRAND D-A-D the most important “degrees” of all.